GREEN BAY – When last seen in a Green Bay Packers uniform a gimpy but game Chad Clifton battled bravely for most of three quarters to keep himself and his quarterback upright.
That was in the Jan. 15 NFC Divisional Playoff Game against the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants at Lambeau Field.
Clifton, who turns 36 in June, ultimately succumbed to back pain and was forced to vacate his left tackle post for the final time.
Today, the Packers waived Clifton after he failed his physical.
It likely signals the end of a terrific 12-year run for “Cliffy” – the gentle giant from Tennessee – whose greatness was defined by more than a decade’s worth of unwavering work ethic and understated excellence.
From Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, Packers quarterbacks didn’t have to play while looking over their left shoulder pad.
They didn’t have to. They knew Cliffy had their back.
Today, that supremely critical task in the Packers’ pass-potent attack falls to … whom?
In a perfect NFL world, last year’s first-round draft pick, Derek Sherrod, would slide into left tackle and everyone would live happily ever after. That’s the fairy tale version.
The reality is Sherrod, who turns 23 today, is still recovering from a potentially devastating broken right leg. After an underwhelming start to his NFL career, Sherrod suffered the injury Dec. 18 at Kansas City.
Recent reports suggest Sherrod’s nerve damage wasn’t as serious as initially feared, and that he will undergo a complete recovery.
That prognosis – while uplifting – is a far cry from Packers coach Mike McCarthy being able to pencil in Sherrod as the starting left tackle.
That leaves arguably the second-most critical position on offense – aside from the quarterback – to Marshall Newhouse.
The 2010 fifth-round draft pick from TCU received little fanfare upon his arrival. No one in the media touted him as the heir apparent at left tackle. In fact, Newhouse’s initial claim to fame was being related to Robert Newhouse, the powerful fullback of Dallas Cowboys’ lore.
Of course, Newhouse’s steady improvement has changed all that.
Newhouse, at 6-foot-4, 319 pounds, now enters the 2012 season as the top contender to replace Clifton at left tackle.
It begs the question: Where would the Packers be if Newhouse hadn’t been drafted by GM Ted Thompson, and he hadn’t been developed by McCarthy and his staff?
The answer: The Packers would have to be seriously considering selecting a first-round offensive tackle for a third straight draft. Bryan Bulaga, the team’s first-round pick in 2010, is the starting right tackle. Sherrod is in limbo. Clifton is gone.
Whether Newhouse excels remains to be seen, but his production and potential suggest the situation at left tackle is far from dire.
Newhouse was taken with 169th and final pick in the fifth round in 2010. Only four offensive tackles were selected later. None has been close to the player that Newhouse has been early in his career.
Dallas selected Notre Dame’s Sam Young at No. 179. Young, now in Buffalo, played in four games for the Bills last year.
Baltimore chose Ramon Harewood of Morehouse with the 194th pick. He has yet to start for the Ravens and his roster spot is in jeopardy.
Chicago nabbed J’Marcus Webb of West Texas A&M with the 218th pick. Webb started 16 games for the Bears last season. His play was erratic if not awful. Webb, according to Pro Football Focus, allowed 12 sacks – second-most among all NFL tackles. He also was flagged for 15 penalties, which was third-most in the league.
Washington took Selvish Capers of West Virginia at No. 231. Capers, now with the Giants, appeared in zero games for New York last year.
By correctly identifying Newhouse, and subsequently developing him, the Packers retain the latitude to select a pass rusher with the 28th pick in Thursday’s first round of the draft.
Even if the Packers go a different direction with that pick, Newhouse’s presence should bolster Packers’ fans hopes that Thompson and his scouts – plus with McCarthy and his coaches – will find a pass rusher.
It may be late in the first round, where they nabbed Bulaga, or it could be late in the fifth round, where they chose Newhouse.
The fact that Green Bay has options, and flexibility, is a testament to Thompson’s draft acumen and McCarthy’s player development.
So while the Packers’ 28th pick is the sexy selection, and it might produce the team’s next top-flight pass rusher, it isn’t the end of the world if Thompson chooses a cornerback, for example.
That pass rusher, like Newhouse the offensive tackle, just might come long after the first-round fanfare subsides.
The bottom line: When Aaron Rodgers drops back to pass his fans care nothing of the left tackle’s hype or pedigree or which round he was taken. They only care that Rodgers has ample time to deliver.
It’s the same with the pass rusher opposite Clay Matthews. They don’t care who he is or where he came from. They only care that Matthews no longer sees double-teams in his sleep, and that the opposing quarterback is hit, hurried and harassed into submission.
Chris Havel is a Packers News expert and national best-selling author. His latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ Player Autograph Parties the evening before home games.